The once esteemed genre of space combat simulations may have stood proud in the 90’s, but in recent years, genuine space sims have become almost non-existent. Franchises like Wing Commander, FreeSpace, Homeworld and the various Star Wars sims may have been big business as primitive 3D graphics made their advancements on PC in particular, but, with the advent of the quest for photo-realistic technology on good old terra firma, space sims became a thing of the past many years ago.
But not for U.K.-based Born Ready Games.
Enter Strike Suit Zero, a Kickstarter success that saw just enough funding to release exclusively for PC at the start of 2013. A competent blend of Wing Commander-style craft customization with Star Wars: Rogue Squadron-style space shooting action, Strike Suit Zero drew mixed reception, but earned itself a nice cult following of starved space sim fans.
Now, the experience is being taken further with Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut, not only rebalancing the combat, packing in the Heroes of the Fleet DLC expansion for free, and including a couple of additional spacecrafts to pilot, but also bringing the game to Xbox One and PS4. The release is especially spotlighted on Xbox One, as it marks the first offering from Microsoft’s ID@Xbox independent game initiative, with PS4 players having PlayStation Plus able to enjoy a temporary discount for the first week as well.
Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut is a better-polished and more enjoyable rendition of Born Ready Games’ Kickstarter baby, and it’s an acceptable first effort for ID@Xbox as well. Bear in mind however that if you’re not actively craving a white-knuckle spacefaring shoot ’em up that echoes space shooter franchises of yore, you likely won’t take to the game as much as its intended audience of nostalgic genre fans, particularly with several tedious and frustrating elements still lingering from the original release.
For the hefty price of $19.99, you’d best know what you’re signing up for in other words.
The fast-paced dogfights you’ll constantly be undertaking won’t leave you much time to admire the scenery, which is a shame, because the backdrops of expansive planets and vast arrays of stars are really quite gorgeous here. There’s a real sense of majesty to Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut’s environments, giving players an undeniable sense of awe as they take in a new cosmic landscape at the start of a mission.
When the actual carnage starts taking place, Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut can be downright dizzying as well! Like space sims of old, your HUD will immediately be filled with targeting arrows, missile indicators, shield warnings, and a massive overload of information, buzzing and dialogue prompts. It may feel quite overwhelming to those uninitiated in space sim combat.
When you get used to it though, Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut is a spectacularly immersive experience. The outstanding lighting behind violent explosions, powerful laser blasts and other such photonic splendour is truly a sight to behold, regardless of which platform you’re playing on. Space combat truly feels hostile and violent in this game, yet still beautiful and empowering for the player, creating a massive sense of satisfaction when you fly through the explosions of an enemy carrier as you take out its weapons and cripple it for another pass that will finish it off.
The PS4 version sometimes suffers from the odd framerate hiccup, but beyond that, everything moves at a steady clip as well. Even tricky barrel rolls and an array of cluster missiles that results in a whole slew of blinding explosions and wreckage barely seems to faze the performance of the game on Xbox One especially.
The PC settings are unusually demanding for an indie game however, and for good reason, so bear that in mind if you plan to play on PC. Anything less than a high-performance gaming rig will probably result in considerable rendering and framerate issues. Even on optimal settings, the PC version is slightly less stable than its console counterparts, though it at least compensates with some added precision if you opt for a mouse-and-keyboard control scheme.
The only strange visual blemish in an otherwise great-looking space shooter is the fact that spacecrafts beyond your own look ill-rendered and dull. They at least zip around smoothly, but if you scrutinize the graphics of any object beyond your own craft, you’ll find them to be disappointingly bland-looking. Granted, you likely won’t have time to go counting polygons as enemy ships constantly try and blast you into space dust.
You’ll pretty well always be looking at Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut in motion, and thankfully, it’s a powerful light show of destruction and intergalactic chaos to that effect.
Where Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut really excels overall is in its sound design. Everything about the audio is absolutely sublime! Hardcore space sim fans will likely also be thrilled that the soundtrack was handled by none other than Paul Ruskay of Homeworld fame to boot!
Naturally, the powerful and pronounced effects of space missiles and rupturing battle cruisers is impressive enough, as is the energetic sound of your thrusters jetting you out of danger during a heated moment. Sure, there’s not supposed to be sound in space, but players likely won’t care, as the incredible scale and mayhem of a large-scale intergalactic war is constantly captured, as is the explosive, violent demise of every enemy fighter you blast away all the while.
It’s the music that will really stick with you though! While you’ll hear a few synthesizer and electronic tunes, what you would no doubt expect from a game like this, most of Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut’s soundtrack consists of Eastern melodies. Desert horns and exotic choral chants populate most of the tunes throughout the game, which you’d think would be awfully mis-matched. You would be very surprised. This bold soundtrack perfectly captures the mysterious and vaguely threatening unknowns of outer space, along with the xenophobic war that has driven two factions of humanity to conflict amongst the stars.
Voice acting is largely well-done as well. There’s a few instances of wooden delivery, and a couple of characters fail to pull off convincing accents without sounding ridiculous, but for the most part, all of the voice work is great. The game’s actual script is a little boilerplate for a space shooter, likely full of dialogue that avid genre fans have heard many times already, but perhaps that’s the point.
As impressive a job that Born Ready Games has done with environmental backdrops and lighting effects, it’s the sound design where they really seem to have found their calling as developers. Quite ironic for a game set in outer space, but it’s true.
Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut tries to straddle the line between a space sim and a flight shooter that just happens to be set in outer space. You won’t be constantly regulating the inner workings of your craft or frantically repairing damage, as some of the game’s inspirations would force you to do, but some degree of customization and tactics are important. Coming out on top is certainly not a simple matter of mashing a button until everything around you is destroyed.
You effectively start by learning the controls in an ordinary spacecraft. On PC, the speediness and accuracy of a mouse-and-keyboard setup make this pretty simple, but even on consoles, Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut handles nicely. You use the sticks to control your yaw and pitch, assign targets and evade missiles with the face buttons, and rely on the shoulder buttons for accelerating/decelerating, as well as firing your main arsenal of weapons. Straightforward stuff.
Early on however, Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut presents its hook, allowing players to man a transforming spaceship that can turn into a mech at the tap of a button, no doubt echoing the Gundam and Macross sims. You need to build up ‘Flux’ in order to use the mech, which is acquired from destroying enemy targets, and even then, transforming into your mech form sacrifices mobility for power, furthering the tactical consideration for when you deploy your alternate form in the heat of combat.
On higher difficulties, knowing when to transform back and forth can often mean the difference between victory and defeat, and even on the Easy setting, the game’s tougher missions demand that you master this practice quickly! It works well enough thankfully, and when you get into a groove of transforming, launching waves of missiles at enemy platoons, then transforming again to speed away as your shields give way to return fire, it can feel very satisfying and exciting!
With that said however, the paltry variety of enemies and mission types means that Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut unfortunately grows repetitive with its mechanics very quickly. You can get through most of the game by using the strategy described above, building up flux, then laying waste to a large count of enemies in your mech form, then speeding away to recharge before you do it again. There are few enemies and objectives that you can’t outlast this way, and that sometimes makes gameplay more tedious than it should be.
Fortunately, the Heroes of the Fleet expansion that comes free with this re-release is a breath of fresh air, and a very challenging one at that! This expansion presents five missions that force you to employ a variety of more ambitious play styles than the ones that will easily get you through most of the main story campaign. These bonus missions will be a delight to hardcore fans of space shooters, though even they will be cursing and pulling their hair out in frustration more than once before they see these trying tasks through to completion!
As much as Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut can frustrate for the right reasons at times however, it still often frustrates for the wrong ones too, just like its original release. While the game has been far better rebalanced now, with the titular Strike Suit now being stronger and enemies being a bit less relentless, the checkpoints are still too often unforgiving. Some missions can have you losing almost twenty minutes of progress if you accidentally die while unable to escape enemy fire, or fail to save some beached whale of a transport while overwhelmed by opposing crafts, and that’s infuriating for even the most disciplined of space shooter players!
Another frequent issue is that too many missions involve protecting or escorting a vulnerable craft. Thankfully, these crafts are very durable, much more so than space sims of old, but it still amounts to constantly babysitting an A.I., one that is too often rendered impotent and helpless while you’re desperately trying to fend off an army of red arrow designations. That’s on top of constantly having to blast away onslaughts of space torpedoes before they impact against your charge as well, something that the game almost consistently fails to adequately warn you about.
Targeting is also a problem on that note. You can press one button to target something close to you, while another just targets what you’re looking at. That’s fine and good when you have one lone faraway target, but if you have a bunch of targets clustered together, especially if you want to, say, disable the weapons of a battle cruiser individually, you have to keep mashing the appropriate button until the game highlights what you want to shoot at. Even in the re-release, this still too often feels sloppy.
Several issues sadly remain with this improved edition, but at least those who actively enjoy space combat will have fun, especially when you can unlock persistent upgrades with high scores and medals. Earning many medals and high scores is also necessary to achieve the game’s good ending, so score-chasers and completionists will definitely have something to strive for, perhaps motivating them to replay missions a few times until they’ve mastered everything.
All in all though, Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut is all about glorifying a formula of game design that is largely foreign to modern gamers. If you’re a space combat veteran that happens to crave this kind of formula, then you’ll be able to look past the lingering issues and enjoy the gameplay for what it is. If you’re impatient and easily frustrated however, and aren’t willing to adjust to the demanding combat and frequent sensory overload, you’ll likely be in for a rather uphill experience.
Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut makes some effort to develop a lore and an overarching conflict. Some of the background information given by the Heroes of the Fleet expansion is pretty interesting as well.
With that said however, the story feels like a mish-mash of various space sim tropes, and sci-fi tropes in general, which most players will be able to predict leagues in advance.
The game takes place in the year 2299, with the U.N.E. (United Nations of Earth) locked in conflict with a faction of Colonial separatists over alien technology. There’s mysterious super-weapons, rogue A.I.’s, convenient amnesia, insubordinate allies, planetary destruction, you name it. It’s all here.
Like the script, the storyline behind Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut feels like it’s actively trying to cobble together the story sensibilities of many beloved space sim franchises. For the nostalgic, it will work well enough, but for anyone actually expecting an original sci-fi odyssey, they’ll probably be left wanting.
The final result of the main story campaign is at least compelling, particularly with two possible endings you can earn, depending on your scores. It still amounts to a mostly run-of-the-mill sci-fi conflict, but at least there’s just enough pressing stakes and epic battles to keep players interested, and at least it all ends off on a satisfying note.
Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut has limited appeal, and appears to be designed with a certain kind of old-school spacefaring audience in mind. It at least improves on the original release in several key respects (though not quite all of them), and manages to translate the experience well to consoles, even if it’s still evident that this game feels most at home on PC, at least in terms of gameplay.
With that said however, this is still a stylish and ambitious debut for ID@Xbox primarily, given that the Xbox One version of Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut is especially well-produced and engaging, and likely the most recommendable of the three, if you’re interested. The PS4 version is still mostly comparable, though it is dragged down a tad by passing framerate issues and less comfortable controls.
If you already played the original PC game, then this re-release doesn’t change the experience enough to merit a double-dip, especially not for another lofty $19.99 price. If you like the idea of challenging, relentless space combat and have yet to experience this noble throwback to a bygone era however, then Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut provides nostalgia and style to spare.
Is it the second coming of the space sim? No. Is it a reasonably good time? Sure, if you’re up to the challenge and are willing to put up with some old-school nuisances.
Strike Suit Zero: Director's Cut echoes the harsh challenge and overwhelming conflicts of retro space sims, and is mainly meant to appeal to that brand of nostalgia over anything else.